Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Rep. McCotter's exit forces an unwelcome Mich. primary


U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.)


LANSING -- If you didn't think Michigan politics were nutty enough, consider this: Some cash-poor communities are about to have to spend tons of money on an unexpected primary election that they don't need or want, that probably will draw very few voters -- and that will have a nearly meaningless outcome.

All this is happening because a quirky, erratic, guitar-playing, chain-smoking congressman ran for president, failed miserably, seemed to have an emotional meltdown, and suddenly quit his job.

U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter's bizarre exit couldn't have come at a worse time. Had the Livonia Republican bugged out a month earlier, the special primary could have been held as part of the regular Michigan primary on Aug. 7. No muss, no fuss, and little, if any, extra government expense.

Had he left a month later, the state probably could have argued successfully that there was insufficient time to hold an election before his term expires in January.

But his July 6 resignation meant the worst of all possible scenarios. What complicates it further is that this is the first congressional election after redistricting. Some of the old territory in Mr. McCotter's district won't even be there come January.

The blue-collar suburb of Westland is moving to another district. But its 84,000 people are, for now, still in the 11th U.S. House District, which includes mainly white suburban areas of Wayne and Oakland counties.

This week, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, in charge while Gov. Rick Snyder is on vacation, set a special primary for Sept. 5, two days after Labor Day. Westland City Clerk Eileen DeHart estimated that this single-item election would cost her city $60,000.

"I feel sick to my stomach," she said. Small wonder.

Whoever wins the primary will be on the national election ballot Nov. 6, to complete Mr. McCotter's term. But that person will represent Westland in Congress for less than two months. After that, the city -- and other portions of the current 11th District -- will be in other districts.

Voters in Westland and elsewhere will vote in November in two congressional races. They'll elect someone to fill the last weeks of the McCotter term, and then another representative from their new district. There also will be a race for a new member of Congress in the new 11th District. The candidates for that district may or may not be the same as those chosen to fill the vacancy.

Will many voters be confused? Sure. Does it make sense to elect someone to Congress Nov. 6 for a term that expires Jan. 1? Probably not.

If the same candidate wins the election to fill the vacancy and the two-year term, that person will get a slight boost in seniority. But likely not $650,000 worth -- the estimated cost of the special election to state and local governments.

Why is Michigan holding this special election anyway? Sadly, the state may have no choice.

Mr. Calley indicated that Michigan has to follow a precedent set in Ohio when Congress expelled U.S. Rep. James Traficant on July 24, 2002, after the Youngstown Democrat was convicted of numerous felonies.

Then-Gov. Bob Taft refused to set a special election, and the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that decision was a violation of law. That precedent would seem to apply in the McCotter case because Michigan is in the same judicial circuit, Mr. Calley said.

However, there is a way to avoid an expensive Sept. 5 primary. If only one candidate from each major party were to file for the special election, then a primary wouldn't be needed.

But Republicans Kerry Bentivolio and Nancy Cassis, the main contenders for the full term, say they will try for the vacancy.

Oddly, while Democrats intend to contest the race for the full term, Dr. Syed Taj, their leading candidate, initially said he had no plans to run in the special election. The Democrats' other candidate, Lyndon LaRouche follower William Roberts, couldn't be reached.

All this came after one of the most spectacular flameouts in Michigan political history. Mr. McCotter made a name for himself as perhaps the only conservative Republican who played in rock bands and could quote Bob Dylan as easily as Ronald Reagan.

He launched a quixotic bid for the presidency last year, but his campaign never got traction. After he received a mere 35 votes out of 17,000 cast in a huge Iowa straw poll, he quit.

Mr. McCotter seemed to lose focus. Staff members said he spent much of his time writing a bizarre pilot for a proposed TV comedy show starring himself and featuring raunchy jokes about bodily functions.

When his campaign filed the 1,000 signatures required for renomination, most of them were invalid. Elections officials said many of those signatures appeared to have been photocopied from petitions from old campaigns. Mr. McCotter was disqualified.

He talked about a write-in campaign, but soon abandoned the idea. Mr. McCotter said he would serve out his term, but abruptly quit.

He seemed to vanish, leaving taxpayers holding a bag with an expensive, and unwelcome, electoral surprise.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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